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Confused about Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership crisis? Here’s what you need to know


Less than a week after securing his party’s support for a new energy policy, Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership is under intense scrutiny.

Here is what you need to know about how we got here so quickly, and what comes next.

So what’s going on right now?

The Prime Minister is facing opposition from inside his party.

He has been forced to change his energy policy — formulated and agreed to just last week — to head off the threat of his own colleagues voting against the policy in Parliament.

It’s not a good look for the man supposed to be the country’s leader.

And there are reports across the nation’s newspapers today that he faces an imminent leadership challenge.

What’s Turnbull’s big problem?

Put simply, he’s not popular enough.

The election is set to be held in the middle of next year.

According to opinion polls — today’s Fairfax-Ipsos poll puts his party trailing Labor 55 to 45 per cent — the Liberal Party is on track to lose that election.

So what’s Turnbull’s other problem?

His original energy policy, which was trying to deliver cheaper energy, more reliability and lower emissions, enjoyed broad support — even in his party room.

Three quarters of Liberal MPs supported the policy at a meeting last week.

However those that didn’t support it threatened to “cross the floor” — that is, vote against it in Parliament.

The balance in the House of Representatives is so tight that even if only a couple of rogue MPs crossed the floor, it could lead to the Government failing to control the House of Representatives.

Mr Turnbull wanted to avoid that at all costs, so he has announced changes to the policy today.

Malcolm Turnbull alongside Scott Morrison and Josh Frydenberg at Parliament House in August, 2018. Photo: Malcolm Turnbull alongside Scott Morrison and Josh Frydenberg announcing the shift towards energy prices. (ABC News: Matt Roberts)

Who’s behind the opposition?

Former prime minister Tony Abbott — the man knocked off in a leadership challenge by Mr Turnbull — has been the most vocal critic of the energy policy.

But there is a group of backbench MPs who have been outspoken about the need to focus energy policy on reducing power prices, including Craig Kelly, Tony Pasin, Eric Abetz and Andrew Gee.

They seem to have got their way, on energy policy at least.

Is it ‘really’ about energy?

These backbench MPs are generally more conservative in their views than Mr Turnbull.

They consider international emissions targets less important than energy prices, so their opposition to the policy makes sense.

But it’s also the case that most of these MPs would be unlikely to support Mr Turnbull in a leadership contest.

Destabilising the prime ministership over this policy could deliver them a leader more closely aligned with their own personal views.

So why is everyone talking about Peter Dutton?

Mr Dutton is a senior conservative voice in the Government who has been identified as the major leadership rival to Mr Turnbull.

A former police officer, he has marketed himself as a politician strong on security and maintaining traditional Australian values.

He’s also from Queensland — the home of a swathe of marginal seats.

Tight shot of Dutton standing in front of an Australian flag. He is looking down towards a journalist (not in frame). Photo: Peter Dutton has control of the vast Home Affairs portfolio which includes migration and federal policing. (ABC News: Matt Roberts)

If he was to become leader, the Coalition would look very different to voters.

Though Mr Dutton might lose the Coalition votes among moderate Liberal supporters in Victoria and New South Wales, his backers would hope he could win enough seats in Queensland to offset those losses.

Why has this blown up so quickly?

This has escalated because the Government has created urgency around energy security and increasing prices.

It’s also an area that emphasises ideological differences within the Liberal Party and has proven volatile for leaders in the past.

Mr Turnbull lost the Liberal leadership in 2009 primarily due to his support for an emissions trading scheme.

At approximately one year out from the next election, we are also at a critical time in the political cycle.

MPs are starting to think about what they can do to give themselves the best chance to keep their seats.

What’s going to happen next?

Mr Turnbull has already announced significant changes to the energy policy today which are focused on securing lower prices.

In the short term, Mr Turnbull has to endure heightened speculation about his leadership.

It could mean that Mr Turnbull’s opponents bring on a challenge in a party meeting.

Malcolm Turnbull gestures at the microphone while Peter Dutton stares at him from behind. Photo: Some are predicting a leadership showdown between Mr Turnbull and Mr Dutton. (ABC News: Adam Kennedy)

That could see a rival such as Mr Dutton nominate, but it could also lead to an ’empty chair’ challenge.

This would allow MPs to express their displeasure with Mr Turnbull — essentially voting against him — and destabilise him further, potentially leading to a second vote with a nominated rival at a later stage.

If the challenge never comes, or the Prime Minister survives a vote, then the introduction of the energy law in Parliament will again put his leadership credentials in the spotlight.

Leading up to the next election, he will face continued pressure as nervous Liberal MPs start to wonder whether they’re better off with another leader to save their jobs.

What does this mean for energy policy?

It will take years to see whether this energy policy — if it gets through Parliament — is effective or not.

But this week has shown decisions have been made, and changed, in response not to the best advice but instead to political pressure.

Okay, so this leadership challenge is really a thing?

The public can expect a little internal tension inside political parties over difficult policy.

In previous decades it would have been inconceivable for this to lead to the overthrowing of a popularly-elected prime minister.

But after four different prime ministers in five years, such leadership speculation is now impossible to ignore.



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